Addressing the skills shortage: educating tomorrow’s workforce for Lean business

skills shortage

August 12, 2016

A story from the Associated Press recently caught my eye, with its headline of “Aging workforce puts strain on skilled manufacturing workers.”  For several years my clients have talked of an enduring skills shortage but now we appear to be approaching a perfect storm thanks to the millions of Baby Boomers due to retire in the near future.

The article reveals that much is being done to address the skills shortage, with New Hampshire used as an example.  The State Governor, Maggie Hassan, has created a ‘manufacturing sector partnership’, bringing together local educational establishments and manufacturing companies to identify the precise skills requirements in the State. Community colleges are putting on classes to train specific skills such as tubing and machining, and local businesses are starting their own internship and part-time job programs.

But what of the UK? According to The Manufacturer the problem is no less acute here: “More and more experienced employees are retiring each year, and the UK requires 830,000 new engineers over the next eight years purely to replace workers reaching retirement.” Successive governments have tried to address the skills shortage, with mixed success.

According to the Chartered Management Institute there is some hope that Degree Apprenticeships may be part of the answer: “Tom Banham, Nestlé’s head of talent acquisition, says the students on its degree apprenticeship programme would not only inject vital professionalism, but also provide relief for an ageing workforce. Around 15% of its skilled manufacturing team is coming up for retirement in the next 15 years, so a lot of knowledge and management skills will be lost.”

I have already blogged about Millennials (people born in the 1980s and 1990s) and my view that they are emotionally and culturally well-suited to Lean business, but attitude will only get you so far; what many of those entering the workforce lack is skills. And they come from education and training.

The increasing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, maths and engineering) subjects in school is notable, but it concerns me that recent moves to narrow the focus of the National Curriculum away from arts and creative subjects could be counterproductive, particularly when thinking about the skills requirements of Lean business.

From a Lean perspective, the skills shortage encompasses more than technical ability.  Highly-prized attributes required for excellence in Lean include leadership, problem solving, mentoring and communication. These skills are learned in a variety of ways, but within a school environment it could be that drama, debating or sport are the key to unlocking this potential.

I certainly don’t have all the answers to the skills shortage, but I believe the joined-up approach favoured by New Hampshire has a lot to recommend it. Starting young by working with schools, creating partnerships between business and education, and continuing the development of apprenticeship programmes are important building blocks.

But also let’s not forget those Baby Boomers who are due to leave the workplace.  Before they climb aboard the cruise ships of retirement, employers should be developing programmes which encourage them to pass on their skills to the next generation through mentoring and coaching.

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